I get that loudly micromanaging a child's every move is horrible. Hovering over your kids, or "helicoptering" as it's now known, has become synonymous with bad parenting. Some experts warn it's a recipe for raising neurotic people with little to no backbone, who'll stumble around in adulthood like baby chicks who fell out of the nest.
The experts are probably right, but the alternative is utterly terrifying. I've never made my peace with standing back while my kids roam and fight and graze on pebbles that could just as easily be dried up rat poop. In its extreme form, this type of laissez-faire childrearing is called free-range parenting, and pressure to adopt its central arguments is mounting. And I have tried to look away, but the ever-present fear that diverting my attention for even a second will result in the kidnapping and/or dismembering of my children wins out.
I broke away from the ethos of letting young kids have the intoxicating, character-building freedom to roam when my daughter was 3. We were at the playground. As she ran circles around a large piece of climbing equipment, I actually loosened up. She was happily doing her thing and it was sunny, so I closed my eyes and put my face up to the sky for probably no more than 20 seconds. When I looked down again, she was gone. Really gone. A full minute passed, and by this point I was screaming her name and imagining the Hallmark Channel movie about my hideous personal tragedy. The fear and panic was the worst thing I'd ever felt.
A few other parents and nannies joined my search and shout party, though not as many as you'd think. Most looked at me like I'd lost it, which I suppose I had. A mom I knew a bit — a full-on shawl-wearing, Montessori-loving free-ranger, who'd annoyed me before with her trendy laid-backness — heard my yells and made a lukewarm show of helping. A minute or so later, my daughter reappeared holding a friend's hand, and said that she'd seen him run off and followed. Free-range mom was triumphant. "See, she showed up! Nothing to worry about." To further stick it to me, she promptly sent her own 3-year-old off — by himself — to use the public bathroom 300 yards away on the other side of the giant, bustling playground that had nearly swallowed my kid.
I was done with this idiocy. From now on, my children were going to be watched at all times, and if I wasn't up to the task, then I'd use their college money on bodyguards and German shepherds. But because I'm a spineless, judgment-fearing people placater, I instead developed a stealth version of helicoptering, which I desperately hope is invisible to the radar of other parents.
It works something like this: I'll pretend to be nonchalantly gazing at my phone while my 2-year-old son attempts to come down a six-foot slide backwards, looking as though he might either fall and smash his skull, or anchor himself with some other kid's hair. But in actual fact, I'm not about to let either of these scenarios play out. I'm poised to jump in as soon as the situation turns from harmlessly rambunctious to a full on head trauma or common assault.
I also listen, like a spy, to my children's conversations with other kids. If I get wind of a violent plot — theirs or someone else's — then I'll quietly remove my kids from the situation.
On play dates, I'll perform a silent risk-assessment, stealthily removing choking hazards and rearranging furniture.
It's a difficult dance, and I feel ever more pressure to hide my natural instinct to protect my young above all else. The cool clique of nonchalant parents may be delightfully oblivious to their kids' GPS coordinates but they detect my fear and weakness a mile off.
Of course, hovering, secretly or otherwise, is an imperfect system, because sometimes parents need to pee. Late last year, my toddler somehow rolled off the sofa and sliced his forehead open on our coffee table (or, this was the testimony of his 5-year-old sister, the only witness) while I was in the bathroom. That night, after four hours in the ER and two layers of stitches, I was furious that I hadn't actually ordered those watchdogs. I could only calm down by mentally sketching designs for an in-home, portable adult potty.
So no, of course I can't watch my kids every second of every day. But all evidence points to the fact that the more I guard them, and step in where necessary, the safer they will be. Until such time as I'm proved wrong, I'll be spinning my parental rotor blades and hoping to go unnoticed.